The Cabreros ancestral home in Basak Pardo, Cebu City.
PHOTO BY CARL RESGONIA/EXPAT MEDIA
CEBU CITY – Obscured by residential houses in Basak, Pardo, in Cebu City, Philippines stands a hidden gem that is more than a hundred years old—simply known by locals as the “Karaang Balay” (old house).
The wooden house, home to four generations of Cabreros families for 106 years, has withstood World War 2, the Japanese occupation and countless super typhoons since it was built in 1915 as the ancestral home of couple Lamberto Cabreros and Eugenia Sabellano, and their seven children: Demetrio, Arcadia, Nemesia, Luisa, Alipio, Teodula and Jovencio.
A century later, amid the dire economic impact of Covid-19, the centennial house faces the threat of being demolished or even sold to make way for a more modern structure, said its newest owner, Clarissa Nacorda Jabonero, the great granddaughter of Lamberto and Eugenia.
“If the walls could talk, there would be thousands of amazing stories to tell,” said Clarissa, 55, who was born in the house, just like her two younger siblings, and their mother, Irene.
The home has been passed down to generations of Cabreros daughters. Clarissa’s mother, Irene, inherited the house from her mother, Nemesia Cabreros, who inherited the house from her parents. “I hope our ancestral home will still live on to tell its amazing history,” said Clarissa, who is finding it very challenging to keep up with the high cost of maintaining the wooden structure.
Cabreros descendants say there is no doubt the house in Basak holds historical relevance. While it serves as a time capsule of how Cebuanos lived since the early 1900s, the house also served as officers’ quarters to Japanese forces who took over the Philippines from 1942 to 1945.
As the war escalated and high-ranked Japanese officers and their geishas moved in, the Cabreros family was forced to vacate their home, which became a home base close to the Japan army’s engineering battalion stationed at Basak Elementary School, said architect Eric Nacorda, great grandson of Lamberto and Eugenia.
“This is why the area next to Basak Elementary School is called Sitio Engineering,” said Eric, 54.
After fleeing to the mountains of Cebu at the height of the war, the family of Lamberto and Eugenia’s eldest daughter Arcadia (who took on the family name Gabuya when she married) made a bold move to return to their hometown and settle in an adjacent house.
Arcadia’s eldest daughter, the late Arsenia, once told this writer that she was threatened with a bayonet after she ventured out at night to find a midwife as her pregnant mother went into labor.
“The soldier’s eyes were livid as he looked at me with the bayonet at the tip of his rifle pointed at my face. He must have thought I was part of the resistance. Thankfully, I taught myself a bit of Japanese, so I was able to calmly explain that I needed to find help because my mother was about to give birth,” Arsenia told this writer in Cebuano. Arsenia, the eldest of Arcadia’s 11 children, died in 2013. She was 93.
Eventually, the Japanese forces lost the war and were forced to flee the Philippines as American troops took over. The karaang balay became home once again.
According to their great grandchildren, Lamberto and Eugenia had originally lived in a much smaller house in an adjacent lot before the karaang balay was built in the early 1900s. By the time the wooden house was complete, the couple welcomed their third daughter, Luisa, and four more children who were born in the house.
At its grandest, the house was a sprawling 600sqm property that was made of beautiful local hardwood, apitong and tugas, known for their water-resistant and termite-resistant qualities. It is believed that the wood was harvested from the hills of Buhisan and Antuanga of Cebu.
Even today, the wide slabs of wooden flooring still hold their shine with a bit of buffering using the traditional bunot, a dried coconut husk. The sliding wooden windows still have their Capiz shell designs intact.
“It is a typical adaptation of the traditional ‘balay na bato’ (house of stone), with the residence on the second floor, and an open area on the ground floor where livestock and grain were stored, typical of a Filipino family who were farmers,” said architect Eric. The Basak area where the house is located derives its name from the Cebuano word “basakan”, which means farmland.
Eric said the architecture of the house reflects its rich history that spans the three eras it has survived.
“The architectural design is heavily influenced by the Spanish, but the building methods already showed American influence with the use of metal roofing, post and lintel construction and concrete foundation,” Eric said, adding that the wood slates used in the interior wall partitions were repurposed crates from the pier area.
At least two generations of Cabreros were born in the house, including Eric’s mother, Irene. This was at a time when there were no hospitals in Cebu and home births were the norm.
“When she got married, the old house was partitioned so she and daddy could live there before their new house was built across Basak Elementary School,” he said.
The Cabreros are a prominent clan in the Basak and Pardo area where they owned vast lands, including the land that was later sold to the Recoletos priests to build what is now the University of San Jose-Recoletos, Basak campus. The ancestral home sits close to the entrance of the university.
Decades before Eugenia died in the 1970s, her daughter, Nemesia, used part of the old house to run what was then considered Cebu’s biggest clothing factory, employing dozens of tailors to produce camisa de chino, a colarless shirt for men, that she supplied to various stores in Cebu. The enterprising Cebuana would later expand her business in a bigger house in Basak, Pardo.
“Being the eldest, she was also the breadwinner of the family and she used the earnings from her garment factory to buy land. The story was that everyone from Basak to Pardo worked for her,” said Clarissa, her granddaughter.
A boom in the business allowed Nemesia to buy more land that she would later will to her parents and siblings.
One of Nemesia’s younger siblings, Jovencio, was born in the karaang balay on February 18, 1918, said Gloria Cabreros Ramos, one of Jovencio’s seven children.
“I also lived in that house when I was a second grader, around 1954 to 1955. Most of the time, I slept with grandma (Eugenia) on her big bed. My aunt Arcadia’s children lived there, too, including Calemeria, Simplicio and Marcelo,” said Gloria, 73.
The big Cabreros family loved music; and the piano and gramophone never gathered dust. “We had piano lessons. My cousin Sergio was taught how to play by ear. I learned how to play Auld Lang Syne, Let Me Call You Sweetheart and other melodies from him,” she said.
“We all had fond memories of games played, climbing fruit trees, and enjoying corn, rice, banana, and coconut harvests,” she added.
Another Cabreros descendant, Dorothea Sy, 71, lived in the old house for some time in her younger days, along with her brothers Dodong and Patricio. She would later return to the house as a newlywed; the karaang balay serving as her small family’s temporary home.
“I remember being assigned to wax the floor, and using a bunot to make it shine. I was about 8 or 9 years old then. I would be paid five centavos, which I would use to buy snacks in school,” Dorothea said. She now lives in a two-storey house a couple of metres away from the karaang balay, in the neighbourhood that is now occupied by a mix of Cabreros descendants, and other locals.
Clarissa, her cousin and now owner of the karaang balay, shares her nostalgia of the ancestral home, which she recalled was so large “I had to wake up someone to come with me if I woke up in the middle of the night to use the washroom at the other end of the house”.
“I have vivid memories of spending the weekends there during my elementary days so we could play with our cousins and relatives,” Clarissa said, adding that as kids they also loved hanging out in front of the house to hear stories from their grandmother, Arcadia, whom she described as the “greatest story teller ever”.
“We fondly called her Nanay Arca. She was like the Cebuano version of Lola Basyang,” Clarissa said.
The fun didn’t stop there. “Every Christmas we would have a family program in the yard and exchanged gifts. I received leftover rice!” she recalled, laughing. “I didn’t join the next Christmas party after that.”
Clarissa said the karaang balay is more than just a house. “It witnessed a lot of stories: love, heartaches, victories… Everything started in that old house. Every piece of wood has the DNA of our ancestors’ stories.”
Will the karaang balay live on to tell another century of stories? Only time can tell, said Clarissa. PIA/Expat Media
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